The Most Misread Person of 2007

(Asia Weekly (Yazhou Zhoukan), also at Qiu Liben's blog)  The Most Misread Person of 2007: Ang Lee.  By Qiu Liben (邱立本).  December 30, 2007.

... Never has any movie drew such extreme responses from the opposite sides of the political and cultural spectra as <Lust, Caution> did.  This movie was labeled a "pornographic" and "dirty" movie by tabloid magazines and movies, but it is actually a movie that bore the burden of history and sentiments.  This movie subverted the long-standing historical narratives that were promulgated by the Democratic Progressive Party, the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang.  It went beyond the boundaries of "sexual love" that the audience were seeing before, and it also went beyond the framework of the original story written by Eileen Chang.  Such was the brilliant radiance of <Lust, Caution>.

In 2006, Ang Lee won the Oscar Best Film with <Brokeback Mountain> and established himself as an international master artist ... When Ang Lee returned to Taiwan in 2006 with the Oscar award in hand, he was received by President Chen Shui-bian and given a medal. But when he returned to Taiwan in 2007 with the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion award in hand, he did not get any official reception.  Instead he was criticized by certain pan-green media which said that this movie was a "movie of Chinese people."  The movie had people speaking in putonghua, Cantonese, Shanghainese and English, but nobody spoke Taiwanese.  Therefore, this was not a "movie of Taiwanese people."

Actually, the pan-green camp and the Taiwan independence movement were wary of <Lust, Caution>, because the major underlying theme was the "Chinese sense of tragedy" during the eight-year-long War of Resistance Against Japan among the Chinese people around the world.  The background atmosphere reflected the sentiments of the Chinese people back then.  The time was 1940, and the War of Resistance Against Japan had gone on for three years.  The Japanese had occupied half of China.  In the year before the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, the female character Tang Wei acted in a stage play at Hong Kong University's Loke Yew Hall and she cried out the slogan, "China must not die."  The audience in the movie was moved and stood up together to chant, "China must not die."

That was not an ordinary political slogan.  At issue was the fate of several hundred million Chinese people, because China faced total annihilation under the pressure of the Japanese military.  This was also the major underlying theme when the story continued in occupied Shanghai.  When the Chinese people walked past the Japanese sentry post, they had to bow to the Japanese soldiers.  When Tang Wei watched a Hollywood movie in a cinema, there was a propaganda trailer for the Japanese Imperial Army.  When Tang Wei took university classes, she was forced to learn to speak Japanese.  Such was the "Chinese sense of tragedy" that was evoked once again.

It is this "Chinese sense of tragedy" that goes beyond the "Taiwan sense of tragedy" that the current ruling party in Taiwan emphasize in their political narrative.  The historical truth was restored and the root of the Taiwan problem was presented again.  The global audience relived how several hundred million Chinese lived under Japanese militarism.  The Japanese colonial administration that certain Taiwan independence advocates praised had been opposed by countless number of Chinese.  The victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan also liberated Taiwan from Japanese colonial rule.

The "Chinese sense of tragedy" of the several hundred million Chinese is actually "a tragedy of the times" just like the "Taiwan sense of tragedy" of the ten or twenty million Taiwanese under Japanese colonial rule and Kuomintang totalitarian rule.  But if you don't understand this "Chinese sense of tragedy," you will never understand the nature of the relationship across the Taiwan Straits or why Taiwanese independence is abhorred by the global Chinese community as well as those in Taiwan who share that "Chinese sense of tragedy."

... Ang Lee seldom talks about politics outside of his movies.  When <Lust, Caution> received the Golden Horse awards for Best Director, Best Drama Film and Best Male Actor, he said that Taiwan must respect cultural tradition and that he was doing his part for "Chinese movies."  His feelings for a "cultural China" showed that "Taiwanese sentiments" and "Chinese heart" are not in conflict with each other, and that the identities of "Taiwanese person" and "Chinese person" can co-exist and complement each other, just as many "Hong Kong people" and "Shanghai people" also regard themselves as "Chinese people."

This obviously subverts the narrative of Taiwan independence advocates; in their narrative, a "Taiwanese person" cannot be a "Chinese person" and all the "Chinese people" on Taiwan "should crawl back to China."  But the red-hot box office performance of <Lust, Caution> delivered the strong message: The "Chinese sense of tragedy" has not been forgotten and Chinese nationalism cannot be distorted or covered up.

Actually, Ang Lee's <Lust, Caution> also subverted the narrative of the Chinese Communist Party.  None of the positive characters in the film -- Tang Wei, Wang Leehom, and the "Old Wu" character -- were Communists.  Instead, they were the "KMT spies" that were long debased by Chinese Communist propaganda.  The soldiers heading to fight at the battlefront were KMT soldiers carrying the "Blue Sky, White Sun, Red Earth" flags.  

Tang Wei's fellow female student yelled to the soldiers, "When you return after winning the war, I will marry you!"  This is related to the change in historical views, as more and more mainland Chinese publications (especially Internet essays) are affirming the contributions of the KMT military in the frontline battles.  People found out that during the eight years of the War of Resistance Against Japan, more than 200 KMT generals died in battle compared to just two Communist generals.  

In recent years, the image of the KMT in Chinese movies and television shows have also loosened up.  But it took <Lust, Caution> to completely subvert the official Chinese Communist Party narrative.  The negative KMT images are now replaced by Tang Wei, Wang Leehom and "Old Wu," all of whom risked their lives to fight the enemy.  This reverses the half-century smear on the KMT, restores the historical truth and also subverts the Chinese Communist Party narrative.

Ang Lee's <Lust, Caution> also subverted the KMT's long-standing narrative about the Wang Jingwei collaborationist government.  The Wang Jingwei government cannot be dismissed with the simple label of "Chinese traitor," nor can the relationship between the KMT and Wang Jingwei's government be glossed over, nor the true lives of people ruled by that government in the occupied areas be ignored.  Tony Leung's character "Yi Mocheng" is a composite from Ding Mochun of Wang's government and Eileen Chang's ex-husband Hu Lancheng.  Ang Lee conducted plenty of research on the history of the Wang Jingwei era (such as showing the flag which was the Republic of China flag plus a yellow triangle; the framed photograph of Sun Yat-sen showing their empathy with the founding father of the Republic of China) ... the movie opened a gateway for people to follow Tony Leung's shadow and discover the hidden and simplified histories presented by the KMT and the Communists.

In truth, there has been an increase interest in the history of the Wang Jingwei era among citizens in recent years.  For example, Lin Siyun's <The Real Wang Jingwei> (which can be found via Baidu) filled in the blank space in previous research and brought back the human faces for political figures who had been denounced as "evil beyond redemption" by both the KMT and the Communists.  Meanwhile the works of Internet writers such as Zhao Wumian and Sha Su tell about the war story that both the KMT and Chinese Communists have attempted to cover up (and these works have not been banned by the Chinese authorities).  Sha Su wrote about the secrets of the Sino-Japanese war based upon Japanese archival materials and his book was popular in mainland China in 2007.  The net result was that the study of contemporary Chinese history has become more diversified and no longer guided by "political correctness" or dominated by the self-righteous "angry young people" or the Old/New Left.  Politics is transitory, but culture and historical truth are for eternity.

... Ang Lee also went beyond the limitations of the 28-page Eileen Chang story, which only provided a story outline.  The script of Ang Lee, Wang Wei-ling and James Schamus filled in large amounts of details and scenes to make the story fuller.  More importantly,  Ang Lee's movie created more space for human confrontations with many dialogues that improved upon the original story.  For example, Tang Wei was meeting Tony Leung in a Japanese restaurant.  To get to the room, Tang Wei had to elude the sexual harassment of those Japanese military officers (because they thought that she was a working girl).  When she got there, she said: "I know why you brought me there.  You are treating me as a whore."  But Tony Leung replied: "I can bring you because I know more about being a whore than you do."  This kind of dialogue revealed the inner thoughts of a "Chinese traitor" and showed that these two characters understood each other at a level that the others never could.  This powerful piece of drama was not present in the original story.

Ang Lee's <Lust, Caution> is a cultural phenomenon for the global Chinese community.  He explored a piece of suppressed and/or forgotten history and changed the simple story of Eileen Chang into a cultural legend.  He subverted the historical narratives of three major political parties, he went beyond the rigid caricature of sex in movies and he surpassed the limitations of the original work by Eileen Chang.  Ang Lee is the most misread person of 2007 and he is also the person who is best at decoding contemporary history.